The looms have long gone silent. The traditional hand-operated, bamboo-and-wood contraptions on which skilled artisans weave dreams in threads of silk. And the modern machines that usually whirred day and night to churn out traditional dresses. But Sualkuchi, the silk town of Assam, is silent as a cemetery nowadays, with its fabled weaving industry shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 35 km from Sualkuchi, Ananda Das, 27, is working at a construction site these days. He has traded his weaver’s tools for a spade and shovel, like many other fellow-weavers, to feed his family in these hard times. Assam, and the Northeast, may not have been as hard hit by coronavirus like the rest of the country, but the region has also been put under lockdown to prevent spread of the virus. The state has recorded one death from COVID-19, out of 44 positive cases.

While lockdown measures have been relaxed to reopen the construction sector, the weaving industry of Sualkuchi is still shuttered. “We had little option. As the days (under lockdown) increased, our sufferings grew. We just couldn’t sit idle. So, we decided to move out and work here at the construction site,” Das tells Outlook. The weaver says he, along with 27 more men from his neighbourhood, had been working at the construction site for the past fortnight. They are getting Rs 500 a day, which is way below the minimum wages for weavers.

“We have looms but they are useless now. If we don’t venture out of home to work, our family will starve.”

Another weaver, Jyotirmoy Rajbongshi, shares a similar story. “We have looms at home but they are useless now. We all are weavers who have been working here. We are helpless. If we don’t venture out of our home to work, our family members will be starving. So, what do we do? We don’t know when things will be normal,” Rajbongshi adds.

Sualkuchi, where weaving of silk clothes dates back to the 11th century, has an annual turnover of Rs 1,000 crore. According to the organisation representing  the weavers, the coronavirus outbreak has brought the 7,200-odd active looms to a standstill for more than a month.

Hiralal Kalita, the secretary of the weavers’ association, who is also a master weaver, says the age-old silk industry of Sualkuchi employs an estimated 15,000 craftspeople. “It’s a terrible situation…We can’t sell our products. Our foreign clients have already cancelled their orders. Clients in the US have told me that they are not buying anymore. And the Japanese clients have asked me to wait for another six months,” Kalita says.

The weavers at the construction sites, however, still wear their identity like a badge of honour—in the form of designer face masks made of silk and golden muga, the same masks they were making before the lockdown kicked in.

by Abdul Gani in Guwahati

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